Dispatches from the Overdose Crisis: A deep, angry lament

In Chillicothe, Ohio, one pastor offers rogue services for friends and loved ones of those who died of drug overdoses, gifting them the opportunity to collectively grieve and fight for the living

Jack Shuler
Rev. Terry Williams, the pastor of Orchard Hill United Church of Christ in Chillicothe, Ohio

They weren’t supposed to be there, really, but they gathered graveside nonetheless. More than a dozen people, friends and loved ones of a man who died of a drug overdose. The family didn’t want them at the funeral, so they organized their own and called on Rev. Terry Williams, the 38-year-old pastor of Orchard Hill United Church of Christ in Chillicothe, Ohio.

This wasn’t his first rogue gathering. Williams had previously organized and presided over other second services, as he calls them. They met in the church parking lot on a Saturday morning in June and caravanned a few hours north to the cemetery. After they parked, two caretakers came over to ask why they were there when no memorials were scheduled. Rev. Williams, in black shirt, black pants and clerical collar, deflected their concerns.

“The collar opens doors with some people,” said Williams, who then paused a beat and chuckled. "People who are prudes and snobs.”

For about an hour, these friends stood in a circle and remembered the life that had been lost. They shared joyous and troubled memories. Some wished they had been there for him when he died.

It was a warm summer day — clear skies, air still. The kind of day that fortifies an Ohioan for the rest of the year. “I remember us squinting our eyes sometimes because the sun was that kind of bright,” Williams said. “I was trying to see everyone’s faces in that circle as they shared and opened up, and the brightness of that group matched the brightness of the day.”

He shared with them the biblical story of Lazarus, a man who dies just as Jesus was on his way to visit him. When he arrives, Lazarus’ sister Martha has harsh words for Jesus, telling him that if he had been there, her brother wouldn’t have died. Jesus doesn’t argue with Martha; he simply weeps. The one who’s supposed to repair, to heal, takes the time to grieve. 

And then Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, Rev. Williams said, explaining that although those we’ve lost to overdoses won’t rise from the dead, we are living our lives differently because they lived. We carry their memory, he said, and that is a kind of resurrection.

That’s when Williams told folks he had naloxone available, and that he could help them find counseling. That’s when he told them that you can let your care for yourself be the way that you honor and grieve the one you have lost. That’s when he told them you can still fight for the living.

“I have done multiple funerals where the next funeral I do is a person sitting in that room,” Rev. Williams said. “And it breaks my heart because you can see folks who are on a knife’s edge. … When we get these thin places, these moments of grieving, it’s a moment where we hope we can hold [onto] them. If folks don’t have healthy ways to grieve, and if folks don’t have healthy places to put their lament, that grief and lament are going to come out in unhealthy ways.”

It’s not always the case that people don’t want to address how their loved one died. It’s not always the case that certain friends are not welcome at the funeral. But it happens often enough, Williams said, and the word got out that he can help. “To be able to lament the fact that we live in a society that could allow people to die because we are too lazy to get this right — that kind of holy lament, that deep, angry lament, is just not welcome in many places,” he said.

That lament, it would seem, is welcomed by Orchard Hill. Rev. Williams sees it as a place where people bring all the issues that nobody else wants to touch. In the 1980s and ’90s, some church members actively supported people with HIV/AIDS when ignorance and fear made it unpopular to do so. People like Mary Rutledge, a once-active community member and local hospital volunteer who discovered that some staff were afraid to enter the rooms of AIDS patients. Food trays began to pile up and Rutledge thought it was undignified. She helped organize people to clean up the rooms. And when patients died and their bodies were left unclaimed, ungrieved, Rutledge and others arranged funerals. Some were held at Orchard Hill, illuminated by the church’s historic stained-glass windows and beneath its high wooden ceilings, boat-like, a ship of sanctuary for those cast off.

Orchard Hill United Church of Christ

When Mary Rutledge died, her memorial service was packed. Folks lined the aisles and ushers opened the doors so people could listen from the parking lot. On that day and for weeks afterwards, people would drop by the church to tell Rev. Williams what she had done for them or for their loved one when no one else would. 

There’s a parallel to this moment, to the services for victims of the overdose crisis that Williams provides. Back then, funerals for those who died of AIDS were sometimes quiet affairs, but they were also loud protests fueled by necessary anger, such as the Ashes Action in 1992 and 1996, when mourners carried the cremains of their loved ones to the White House and threw them over the fence. 

There are protests now, as well: funerals where people distribute naloxone, a funeral march in New York City. In Vancouver, Canada’s Oppenheimer Park, they plant crosses to honor the dead. Maybe the same should happen on the Ohio Statehouse lawn. 

We should grieve and we should mourn, but we should also be angry. If policies were different — if we’d end the war on people who use drugs; if Ohioans had access to overdose prevention sites and better access to methadone; if we had a true Good Samaritan Law — Rev. Williams’ services wouldn’t be needed.

There’s a real chance that he’ll be doing it again. Two weeks ago, the CDC released a new estimate: 104,288 Americans died from a drug overdose in a 12-month period ending in September 2021. That’s about twice as many deaths as in 2015. Harm Reduction Ohio estimates that 5,300 Ohioans died from overdoses in 2021. Chillicothe’s Ross County death rate is fifth in the state (Franklin County is 24th). 

While we grieve, Williams said, we need to work towards effecting change. He knows the people who were at that second service understand that. Some have become active in harm reduction efforts because they know what happens when it’s absent.

“We’ve seen now multiple generations of families endure this trauma,” he said, “because we’ve seen inaction from people who have power and authority in our society — folk in Columbus and Washington, D.C., and faraway places with lots more money than Ross County, Ohio.” 

We cannot wait on them to save us, Rev. Williams said. We must grieve, but we must also fight.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) to reach a 24-hour crisis center available through the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or text 741741 to connect with a trained Crisis Counselor from Crisis Text Line. Naloxone is available through Harm Reduction Ohio, Central Ohio Harm Reduction, Franklin County Health Department, Columbus Public Health and Safepoint. Support services are also available through Never Use Alone, Brave and Safepoint.